Buick Series 90 Convertible Coupe

From the beginning, Buick’s hallmark was its Valve-in-Head engine. The work of engineer Walter Lorenzo Marr, the design placed valves directly above the pistons in what is generally known today as overhead valve configuration. This provided better breathing and translated to more power and better performance. The Buick Model B of 1904 used the concept, as have all Buicks, with a solitary exception, ever since.

The early years of Buick were complicated by founder David Buick’s lack of business acumen. It was William C. Durant who finally gave the company some stability. The head of Durant-Dort Carriage Company, Durant was brought in by bankers to straighten out Buick’s messy management. In the process, Buick became the cornerstone of the new General Motors combine that Durant was building. Popularity of the Model 10 Buick, a four-cylinder car introduced in 1908, helped Buick into second place in the industry, after Ford, through 1910.

As Durant maneuvered his way through the growing General Motors, he took in some young protégés, and soured relations with some of the older men, particularly the bankers. When the financiers forced Durant out in 1910, his place was taken successively by a young Charles Nash and later by Walter Chrysler, both of whom would soon make their marks in the industry with companies of their own. Buick began building six-cylinder cars in 1914, abandoning fours briefly in 1919, and seemingly for good in 1925. For Buick, it seemed, six spelled success.

However, by the late 1920s eight-cylinder engines had become de rigeur, particularly for upmarket automakers. Buick, with its enviable legacy of sixes, was late in coming to the new fashion. But when it happened, it happened in a massive way. For 1931, Buick launched not one but three straight eights. Moreover, the three shared almost no tooling or parts. Chief Engineer Dutch Bower delegated the design work to his protégé, John Dolza. There was a small, 221 cubic inch unit for the 50 Series, a 272.6 cid engine for the 60 Series, and the 80 and 90 Series shared a big 344.8 cid powerplant that developed 104 brake horsepower at 2,800 rpm. With three new engines the transformation was complete. Buick would build exclusively eights for the next three decades.

In the wake of the new engines, however, Buick sales fell markedly as the Depression deepened. Sales for 1932 were barely half those of 1931 and 1933’s fell further still, although much less sharply. Buick needed a guardian angel. Then, two important things happened for 1934. The first was Knee Action independent front suspension, the second was Harlow Curtice.

Knee Action was a coil spring setup developed by General Motors engineering. Often confused with the system of the same name used on 1934 Chevrolets and Pontiacs, Buick’s system, employed also by Oldsmobile and Cadillac, was something completely different. Whereas the Chevy-Pontiac system was an oil-filled spring-shock absorber developed by French inventor André Dubonnet, and licensed from him, the Buick-Olds-Pontiac Knee Action was a short-and-long arm design by British-born engineer Maurice Olley. The idea of using the same trademark on two radically different systems seems bizarre, but despite inevitable confusion it saved GM plenty of backtracking when the Dubonnet system was found troublesome and the Olley design was extended to the lower-priced nameplates. Rolls-Royce evaluated the GM system and also Packard’s new independent setup, and chose GM’s to use under license.

In addition to Knee Action, the 1934 Buick received a number of other engineering features, including a starter switch operated by the accelerator pedal, which would remain a feature for decades, a cowl-mounted fresh-air ventilator, and safety glass. On the Series 90 safety glass all around was standard; other series made it an option.

Harlow Herbert “Red” Curtice was president of GM’s AC Spark Plug division. He had expanded AC’s product lines to include oil and fuel pumps, oil filters and speedometers. GM Vice President William Knudsen scouted Curtice from AC as the man he felt could rescue Buick. Curtice came on board in October 1933. He realized that for the tough economic times, Buick needed a less expensive model. Smaller and lighter than any other Buick, the Series 40 was introduced in May 1934. It used the Chevrolet-Pontiac “A” body, and sold for as little as $795. Mainly on the strength of the 40, Buick sales rose 50 percent in 1934, and better things were in store for the future. As good as the Model 40 was for the future of Buick, it also heralded the end of the grand 90 Series Buicks.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in January of 2009 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona.

116bhp, 344.8 cu. in. overhead valve inline eight-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission, suspension via independent front coil and rear semi-elliptic leaf springs, live rear axle, four-wheel mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 136"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Simon Clay

Be part of something big